Progress and Me
I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of "progress." On one side, I'm all
for it. It's a fabulous way to improve the human condition: to progress means
to grow and learn. On the other hand, progress has often been a step on the
wrong direction. Under the guise of "progress," urban mass transportation
methods have been reduced to relics, interstates have come to dominate the
landscape, and nature has been relegated to afterthoughts amid suburban
sprawl.

I think my problem with the word is that it has become so abused. Politicians
love the word, but convey no real meaning when they use it. Rick Perry, for
example, believes that building eleven (now reduced to three large) coal
plants represents progress in maintaining energy production. The Iraq war is
said to "progress" slowly, indicating that the situation is steadily improving.
Say what?!

Real progress requires change. To progress, one must first break the chains
of the status quo and by doing so question authority. A new paradigm emerges
with innovative ideas that improve the quality of life - that's what progress
should be. It's not about opening strip malls where once stood prairie, or
replacing old iron bridges with utilitarian, low-slung concrete structures.
Ultimately, progress should be measured by what legacy we can be proud of to
leave behind.

I am always trying to find ways to progress (improve). I read controversial
books, listen and give merit to different opinions (except Ann Coulter!), and
get involved in worthwhile causes. The best education for me is traveling; I
feel that on the road, I grow.

At the same time,  I can be incredibly backwards. I sometimes find myself
fighting change at all costs. I am livid about the proposed Trans-Texas
corridor and have made my opinions known. I see most new technology as
subtle forms of enslavement (even though I have a website - never said I was
logical!) I refuse to eat new cuisines and am reluctant to read new fiction
because I don't want to get "burned" by a bad book.

What got me thinking about my relationship to "progress" was Salman
Rushdie, who wrote (and I paraphrase), that those who oppose progress are
those who cannot think. I ponder what he meant by that. If I oppose the
destruction of a venerated building, does that mean I'm a non-thinking moron?
Or did Rushdie mean what I meant when I wrote that progress improves the
human condition? Destroying beauty doesn't better anyone, does it?

I think historians in general will find it hard to define true progress. It's one of
those elusive concepts that can mean so many things - and may not say
anything at all.
Downtown Dallas, where shiny glass and steel overshadow
the old buildings - is it progress or not?
Signs of downward progress can often be hidden in
nostalgia.  For example, I enjoy discovering old advertising
on downtown buildings (above is a Coca Cola advertisement
in Chickasha, Oklahoma). Advocating national brands as
opposed to local products, however quaint, ultimately made
many  communities lose their identities. So I contradict
myself:  I wouldn't say that Wal-Mart is progress, but I don't
seem to have had any qualms in reveling in old
advertisements of homogenized soda pop.
Once again I have a dilemma of conscience: I love old neon, and lament the
demise of these beautiful signs along the highways. Yet when neon first debuted,
many people thought it garish, and towns even relegated its displays to
designated areas. Of course, these old neon signs became the forerunners of the
cheaper and utilitarian plastic signs. And didn't  Holiday Inn, the homogenized
chain that supposedly progressed the motel industry to respectability, start out as
a roadside motel, too? Now I find myself resentful of the chains that introduced
neon in the first place...
Men from any era want to put their own mark on the
landscape, whether that be by buidling their own houses,
commemorating statues, displaying huge monuments and
tombstones, errecting a building, or simply installing a
fence. It seems as if architecture and history are the actual
result of one big pissing contest. Excuse the language!
Questions or comments? E-mail me:
robin@redriverhistorian.com